The Truth About News

The newspaper business. People know about the first word but often forget about the difficulty of the second word. The newspaper does its damndest to deliver the important news of the world to the general public, but it still needs business to pay its hard-working reporters and circulate to newsstands. News needs to sell papers just as much as it needs to be informative, not as a means of capitalism but sustainability. Of course there’s the concern of certain news stories being too shocking or revealing that it might scare people away, especially people with money. Imagine having a story so shocking that it could literally unravel over 30 years of trust and prestige built by the American government, and said government is practically holding a newspaper hostage until every other newspapers promises to betray their duty and not report news. Which word does one protect: the newspaper or the business?


This is the debacle of The Post, a poignant and powerful look at the tug of war between a newsman and a businesswoman. The former is Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), editor of The Washington Post who is tired of the Post playing second fiddle to everyone from The New York Times and The Washington Daily News with better stories than his reporters offer. The latter is Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher of The Post who jumped into job after the paper’s previous publisher, Katharine’s husband Phil, committed suicide in 1963. It’s now 1971 and Kay is about the take the company public on Wall Street to ease financial worries when longtime friend and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) tells her one night that the Times is going to run an “unflattering” story about him the following morning. The story is the infamous leaking of the Pentagon Papers: 7,000 pages of classified government secrets detailing how the Vietnam War was a lost cause but America would rather send men to their deaths in Army helmets than admit defeat. Bradlee is pissed that the Times got the scoop and wants his reporters to find the pages for follow-up coverage, while Graham is struggling to make her voice heard in boardrooms full of stuffy businessmen determining what’s best for business. Bradlee’s reporters (Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, David Cross) are getting closer to finding the papers and pulling back the curtain of the White House even more, but Graham and Bradlee butt heads over if the Post can handle being on President Nixon’s hit list if they publish more stories.


There are two obvious comparisons to be made with The Post: 1976’s All the President’s Men detailing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting of the Watergate scandal, and 2015’s Spotlight about the Boston Globe’s crack team of investigators revealing years of sexual abuse by priests of the Catholic Church. Those two movies focused more on the reporting side of journalism, the muckrakers who spent months on end chasing dead-end leads and chipping away at the facts to find what the world needed to know. While The Post does highlight the tireless effort of reporters Ben Bagdikian, Meg Greenfield and Howard Simons, it’s more about the chains that profitability holds on newspapers. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s tight script expertly balances the obvious need to report the truth and the equally-obvious fear of the government effectively shutting-down the Post after ordering the Times to stop publishing stories about the papers. Also unlike Spotlight and President’s Men, The Post is a much flashier version of the story courtesy of director Steven Spielberg. While The Post is no blockbuster spectacle, Spielberg’s love of background spotlights and the faded color palette typical of serious Spielberg movies from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) are ever present. Whereas the filmmaking of President’s Men and Spotlight were more grounded, The Post is a glossy Hollywood production. Fortunately, Spielberg is well-aware of the material he’s working with and leaves most of his eccentricities at the door. The filmmaking doesn’t distract the audience from the story being told and the drama isn’t blown out of proportion, it’s presented for the audience to feel the weight of the story.


Further making The Post an event is the presence of Meryl Streep. Ever since her speech at last year’s Golden Globe awards calling out Donald Trump and announcing her support of protecting journalist, practically all eyes have been on the acting legend and her performance in the movie. Now we can breathe sighs of relief because Streep is in top form here, fully embodying the dual-persona Kay Graham had to take on at the time. In front of the Post’s board members, Graham was patient and unphased by the subtle sexism of her male colleagues. Even if she’s talked over in conversation or talked down to, she keeps a brave face and is able to establish her own presence in every room she walks into. Privately, she’s still a touch unsure of herself as a publisher in the middle of the Pentagon Papers controversy with friends in the Nixon camp (especially McNamara in a heated confrontation). She knows publishing stories about the papers is the right thing to do, but she’s pressured into fearing for how Washington elites might feel about the Post adding to the damage of the Nixon administration, lessening the worth of the paper and her family legacy (her father bought the Post in 1933). Graham is the underdog of the story and Streep plays her without a hint of asking for sympathy.


The rest of the cast basically revolves around Streep, but that doesn’t mean they slack off. Tom Hanks, America’s dad in Hollywood, is a fine choice for the Bostonian grump of Ben Bradlee. It’s actually fitting for smiling everyman Hanks to spend his golden years playing hardened bossmen cracking wise while national history is going on in the background. Even more impressive is the supporting cast: Bruce Greenwood, an expert supporting actor who’s played everyone from John F. Kennedy to a captain of the Starship Enterprise, is incredibly compelling as a man simply stuck in the middle of the worst possible situation a high-ranking government official could be. Despite him actively trying to close the leaking of his own handiwork (McNamara commissioned the Pentagon Papers), he’s not a villain but more of a victim of the incompetence of past presidencies fully-experiencing an unprecedented situation. For the rest of the cast, it seems as if Spielberg has spent the last decade watching every great TV show and picking out who made the best impressions in the smallest amount of screentime, hence solid performances from Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons and Zach Woods.

If it weren’t for the political and cultural context, The Post would probably not be as big of an event as it currently stands. It would be a simple reminder that Steven Spielberg remains untouchable as one of the greatest film directors in film history, he knows how to pick his actors and said actors bring their A-game on screen. But now, it is a much-needed reminder of the delicacy newspapers take in informing the American public. There is a crushing pressure to find the sources needed for a story and frivolous work that goes into researching and crafting a story. But even after a story is done and a newspaper is ready to go out, there is still that final moral dilemma of “is this story right,” meaning right in terms of accuracy and right for the readers. In the era of #fakenews, The Post is a reminder how no matter what (or who) the circumstance is, journalists know when to cut the crap and make the country eat its vegetables. It’s meant to show how the effort of listening and taking a stand against lying can be the start of something more, something greater. The best example of this is The Post’s ending scenes: The first being a recorded phone call with President Nixon sounding stressed from the Post’s further investigation of the papers, and the second being a security guard investigating a break-in at the Watergate Complex, the kickstart of the Watergate scandal.


The Trouble With Truth


Here’s where I might be committing journalism-career suicide: Mary Mapes, acclaimed news producer, made some really dumb decisions that ended her broadcast news career. At least that’s what the movie adaptation of the story that got her publicly lambasted and fired from her profession appears to be telling me.

As a journalism student, I’ve been told time and time again to check my sources in a news story. No matter how long it may take or how difficult the process may be, the value of concrete evidence and accurate sources have been hammered into my head so many times that a doctor would probably see “CONFIRM YOUR SOURCES” indented in my brain. I’ve also learned about time management, following up with sources, the benefit of on camera work and, probably most importantly, persistence. If there’s a problem, follow up on it and make sure it can be fixed or throw it out from the story. I put all of these basic concepts out in front because, according to the movie Truth, those concepts were chucked out the window in favor of timeliness. Too bad it cost the reporters involved their jobs.

Truth is the movie adaptation of a 2004 60 Minutes reportn then-President George W. Bush, who had supposedly skipped out on his training and service in the Texas Air National Guard, which he joined to avoid being drafted to Vietnam and was given special treatment. The story was produced by Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and her personal team of reporters (Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss and Topher Grace). Despite the legitimacy of documents used in question, sources unwilling to talk or go public and a mere five days to put it all together, Mapes and her team finish the story in time for Dan Rather (Robert Redford) to deliver it to the world. Mere days after the story is broadcasted, online blogs and fellow news media outlets start questioning the story, citing how a group of memos used as a primary source have font patterns and indentations been that could’ve only been typed up on a computer. Rather, Mapes and her team face attacks from the media as they try to keep the story relevant.

Like most movies about journalism, Truth tries to paint Mapes and her team as fearless heroes fighting back against the evils of conservative media and legal teams. However, the movie takes more broad shots than it does at specific targets. Despite some conservative blogs pointing out errors in the story, Truth damns all of the Internet as a hive of uneducated bullies. While other news media outlets are simply regurgitating that the story is under investigation, the movie tells its characters that everyone is out to get them. It’s like the cool kids table in a high school cafeteria: you’re either with them 100% or you’re a loser who can’t sit with them.

While I know nothing about how the actual story and its aftermath took place, Truth paints its real-life characters in a very unprofessional light. While the purpose of the story appeared to be something juicy to air before the 2004 election, the dialogue between the reporters when they’re gathering their resources feels like they want to the story to keep Bush from being re-elected. To the movie’s credit, it shows how stressful it is to get sources on the record about something that could taint the President’s reputation (especially in the five day span the team was given to get the story together). However, when everything hits the fan and the team scrambles to keep their story solid, Truth doesn’t present them as noble reporters following procedure but as frantic, jaded big shots that would rather point the finger of blame elsewhere than admit their own faults. It’s understandable that the reporters want to do everything possible to make the report as legitimate as possible, but Truth plays it out like a smear campaign against Bush. I’m no Bush supporter, but shouldn’t the accuracy of a report matter more than how timely it is?

If the movie can’t stand on its vision of the reporters, the actors in it can. Cate Blanchett dives headfirst into the role of Mapes and nearly walks off with the movie. There’s a tenacity that only she brings to roles, and Mapes is no exception. She deals with the whirlwind of emotion Mapes goes through during the movie, stern and brave against critics while emotionally breaking down as she realizes she failed her friend. That’s Dan Rather, played by Redford who is on autopilot but makes it look better than most actors. The reporting team all has fine actors, except for Topher Grace who still comes off as the whiny punk from That 70s Show. I’m not sure if he’s trying to give a different performance and it doesn’t connect or he just doesn’t have anything beyond the “Eric Forman” character, but it’s very hard to take him seriously.

Truth has good intentions for sure, but it’s hard to cheer on the characters the movie depicts when it’s easy to see how their methods will be their downfall. It’s like watching the rest of the Spartans in 300 have their final confrontation with Xerxes. They’re all valiant, but you know they’re all getting slaughtered with the wave of Xerxes hand. What’s worse, Truth doesn’t acknowledge that Mapes and her team screwed up until the last ten minutes of the movie. Even after that happens, Mapes and Rather get a slow-motion final scene for each other that tries to send them off gracefully. In the context of their careers, of course they deserve it, but Truth doesn’t do anything to build a case of sympathy. I’m not taking anything away from the real life Mary Mapes and Dan Rather, who have both done incredible jobs reporting the news in the past. In fact, they should sue the makers of Truth for making them look like little kids who’d rather throw a tantrum than say they’re sorry for what they did. It is important to keep the hard-hitting questions Truth brings up in circulation, but the problems with its explanation and evidence can’t be shoved under the rug.

Final Verdict: 2 out of 4 stars